While some refer to film noir as a genre, others argue that it’s a style of film, one that borrows liberally from other established film genres. Throughout the decades, critics have made numerous attempts to nail down a definition of film noir. However, in the words of cinema historian Mark Bould, film noir is an “elusive phenomenon … always just out of reach.”
Film noir owes as much to German expressionism from the 1910s and 1920s, its dramatic use of shadowy lighting, and the psychological elements of visual composition as it does to the hard-boiled school of American detectives and crime fiction. These books were popularized during the Depression by writers like Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich, and W. R. Burnett.
While Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlow played the white knight, who rescued the gal (or at least tried) from tough circumstances, Hammett’s stories were based on his experiences as a Pinkerton detective. His best known hero, Sam Spade, is an unapologetic tough guy, who keeps his feelings buried and simply does the job. And while Sam Spade may not be warm and fuzzy, he believes that losing a partner to murder is bad for his business. A not unreasonable conclusion.
James M. Cain wrote his stories about less heroic protagonists, focusing more on the psychological aspect behind the events. It is from Cain that the subset of hard-boiled fiction known as “noir fiction” emerged. Cornell Woolrich also wrote downbeat suspense tales, while Burnett’s style fell somewhere in between the hard-boiled mystery and the noir fiction story. His protagonists were heroic, but just happened to be gangsters.
Many of the authors who developed the style or genre of film noir had their works published in Black Mask and the other pulp fiction magazines. Further, many of the authors also wrote screenplays, largely for the dough.
In any case, the term “film noir” seems to elude clear definition. But whether you think of it as a genre or a style, it remains a filmmaking staple even to this day.
I suggest for further reading, that you check out this article: The Dark Beauty of Film Noir in 50 Shots.
The article captures a wide array of movies, from the prestigious films with big stars (e.g., Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice) to the low-budget “Poverty Row” flicks (e.g., Detour and The Specter of the Rose).
It’s well worth a read!